FRUP preview (1995)

This preview was written for Pyramid magazine sometime in 1995. As far as I know it never appeared, at least not in this form.


Every couple of years a new game comes along which completely changes the shape of the adventure games hobby. White Wolf did it in 1991, redefining modern role-play with Vampire, Wizards of the Coast did it in 1993 with Magic: the Gathering. Now, in 1995, Hogshead Publishing, the company that brought you the genre-smashing magazine Interactive Fantasy, is about to release its magnum opus, FRUP, which will not be one of those games. FRUP is only revolutionary in the sense that it’s going to make a certain games company’s lawyers’ heads rotate at high speed.

Remember that other game you used to play before you knew better? The one with several rulebooks written in a strange language which used words like ‘dweomer’ and ‘cf’, with mechanics that made no sense and a background hotch-potched together from almost every mythology and fantasy book you can think of? You know the one? Well, FRUP is going to nail it to the floor and kick the living daylights out of it.

Second bit

Come with us into a strangely familiar world of warriors and wizards, elves and dwarves, character sheets and combat rounds, dungeons and… what do you call those big lizard things? This is the land of Frup, where three enormous RPG rulebooks fell from the sky and were proclaimed as a Message from the Gods. Two thousand years later the holy rules contained in the Great Books have become the foundation for Frup’s entire religion and law. Breaking the rules is heresy. Heretics get burned at the stake.

So you’re in a world where everybody absolutely believes that they’re characters in a huge campaign of a certain market-leading RPG, being played by the Gods of Frup. Everyone has a character chart with their attributes (Brawn, Agility, Stamina, Influence, Cunning and Sagacity and morality (from Evenly Nice to Oddly Naughty) on it, plus their Career and Stage if they’re a PC. Anyone found without a character chart is clearly a monster, and will be butchered for career points. The same treatment is usually given to NPCs, and PCs a few stages lower than yourself. Stay alert. Keep your longsword handy.

(The alert among you will have noticed that FRUP doesn’t use ‘industry-standard’ terms (please wake up, the rest of you). It’s because the front page of each of the Books of Frup contained a list of ‘sacred words’ which were too holy to be spoken by the inhabitants of Frup, so the priests and translators had to create their own alternatives. It has nothing to do with the fact that we’re scared pantless of being sued for trademark violation by a lawsuit-happy games company. Goodness me, no.)

Third section

‘But Uncle James, what does FRUP mean?’ I hear you cry in various quaint accents. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s traditional for fantasy games from small companies to have meaningless and uncommercial names. ‘Talislanta’? ‘Synnibarr’? ‘Gardasiyal’? Cutteth unto mine self a break, my good dude, as the palatines of Ortalon might say. At least ‘FRUP’ is short.

Okay, we’ll cop to it. It’s the way you pronounce ‘F.R.P.’ as in ‘fantasy role-play’. And it’s not meant as a reference to any of the games designed or produced by that nice-but-short Mister Jackson or his faithful lackeys. They’ll get their turn later.

Another section

Characters in FRUP have two character sheets: one in the game world, and one in reality. The first says what your character is supposed to be able to do, and the second says what they can actually do. Naturally, the two are completely different, and this causes problems for them. If your official FRUP character chart says your character is a Rascal and they’re caught casting a spell, then they’re clearly a heretic and will be burnt at the stake. If the character is a Wizard who can’t use magic, or an Elf who doesn’t have night-vision, then they’re clearly a doppelganger, and will be burnt at the stake too. Do elves really have night-vision? Of course not. Don’t be stupid. Why should we make things easy for the pointy-eared sods?

The world is divided into haves and have-nots: PCs and NPCs. In theory anyone can become a PC simply by joining one of the eleven Orders (Warriors, Priests, Rascals, Aesthetics… you know the sort of thing). However, since the Orders charge characters massive fees to join, and only slightly less massive fees to stay, the ratio of NPCs to PCs is about a hundred to one. Only PCs are allowed to go adventuring, collect career points and go up stages; most NPCs must stay at stage zero, and can only fight to defend themselves. You can see the advantages of being a PC.

PCs have to carry copies of the Book of Life and the Book of Beasts with them at all times. The rules themselves are contained in the third book, the Book of Law, and are adjudicated by the Chapter: high-level priests, members of the Rules Lawyers or the Wandering Ministers. They oversee and pass judgement on all rule disputes, award career points, administer the Generation Ceremonies, where young characters have their attributes tested and recorded on their Character Chart, and arrange the trials of those accused of heresy or doppelgangerdom. Powerful people, Rules Lawyers. Do not mock them or their improbable hats, or they will call you a heretic, and it’ll be toasty marshmallow time for you.

A PC collects career points in two ways: killing monsters and getting treasure. To prove to the Rules Lawyers that you’ve killed a monster, you have to show them its ears. If it has no ears then you have to show its whole head, and if it has no head then you have to bring the whole corpse back and show that. Strangely, the most valuable monsters usually have no ears, and live in remote areas hundreds of miles from civilization. Monsters in FRUP are not stupid.

Treasure also earns a character career points, but it must be handed over to the Chapter to get them. That makes it possible for a new, crap character from a rich background to buy themselves up to stage ten within days of their Generation Ceremony, while a really skilled character with no money may be stuck as a NPC for their entire life. Guess what’s going to happen to your characters.

Four races on Frup are considered Characters: humans, elves, dwarfs and halflings. This was decided at a huge conference shortly after the Great Books fell. Orcs, goblins, ogres and giants showed up, agreed to become monsters, and were immediately killed for the career points. The gnomes declared that the rules were silly and they weren’t playing; and were mysteriously wiped out the following year. And then there are the Varne and the Nameless Ones, who aren’t in either the Book of Life or the Book of Beasts, so officially they don’t exist. Don’t try handing over their ears for career points, because only heretics believe in them.

About half-way through now

Underneath the small pile of good jokes and the much larger pile of bad ones, FRUP is actually a playable game. We thought that was important: if nothing else, it gives us an excuse to churn out a few supplements for the thing. So at least one evening was spent developing a coherent, interesting and playable background for the land of Frup, riddled with campaign hooks, interesting characters, plots and intrigue, and justifications for why dungeons exist (see, there are these enormous tunnelling creatures called Purposeful Worms…)

The world of Frup is divided into five main kingdoms, plus a few more around the edges that nobody takes very seriously. To start with there’s Ortalon, a fantasy kingdom so bland that even the rain is generic. Mighty warriors, fierce monsters, inbred nobility, inbred peasantry, valiant knights, fire-breathing damsels, dragons in distress, and all the rest of that. Players of the sort of fantasy RPG written by someone who seems to think originality is a capital offence will feel right at home here.

Several hundred years ago Ortalon was hexed; that is, a hexagon grid was mapped on it, with the boundaries marked by roads, rivers, forests and so on. Each hex or group of hexes is controlled by a knight, baron or earl. They all hate each other, but not as much as they hate foreigners. Inhabitants of Ortalon speak a faux-Olde English: ‘Odds bodkins, goest thou to the Towne Halle, prithee mine fine varlet?’ in an American accent. While this probably isn’t very funny to Americans—it seems to be the way most of you role-play anyway—it makes British people crack up. Yes, Hogshead is a British company. Why do you ask?

Next to Ortalon is the dark and moody, hip and tragic kingdom of Reih*navia, where black is the national colour, dentistry is a state industry, bad poetry is the national art-form, and dying of tuberculosis is considered a fashion statement. Reih*navian nobles go out after dark, wear dark eye-shadow, drink dark cocktails with suspicious ingredients, and cultivate dark, sinister laughs; and Reih*navian peasants all carry wooden stakes, just in case.

Every place name and all noble surnames in Reih*navia contain at least one curious symbol; the more noble, the more symbols. Each symbol also signifies a gesture to be made while pronouncing the word; so ‘Reih*navia’ is pronounced ‘Reih-‘ (hand placed on brow, expressing deep angst) ‘-Navia’. There are so many of these symbols and gestures, representing so many different social ranks, that non-Reih*navians find it impossible to keep track of them, and usually prefer to call anyone with a symbol for a surname ‘Prince’.

South of Reih*navia is Dalriada, a very rough, barbaric land populated by people with horns on their helmets, fire in their hearts, whisky on their breaths and a knife in their friend’s back. It is a mountainous land divided into fifty different kingdoms, all of which hate each other, but not as much as they hate Reih*navians and Ortalons. The people of Dalriada wear very little except for kilts, and are heavily tattooed and pierced. This is because kilts don’t have pockets, and they need something to hang their equipment on. Dalriadans make fearsome if rather unreliable warriors.

Then there’s Zarzuela, land of sand, mystery, magic and getting beaten up in dark alleys, but mostly sand. Zarzuela is split into three separate nations which all hate each other, but not as much as they hate everyone else. You may spot a pattern developing.

And there’s Ladrone, land of the elves, with its two prominent landmarks, the Great Tree and the Other Great Tree; and the Great Dwarfen Empire which exists entirely underground, and the frozen and inhospitable Northern Northlands to the north, and the tropical and unexplored Western Westlands of Abasia to the south (magnetic fields… don’t get us started), and the inscrutable island of Chekalatoun, centre of tea-drinking… We could go on and on (we usually do) but we’re running out of space.

Central to this mess is Carfax City, the tiny city-state in the middle of Frup, where the Chapter is based and where the three Great Books of Frup are kept in the Great Temple. It is from here each spring that the wagon-trains leave, filled with hand-made illuminated copies of the Great Books and blank vellum character charts, destined for generation ceremonies in every corner of the land of Frup. About fifty miles outside Carfax that they are all set upon by bands of heretics and Varne, and burnt. It’s traditional.

I think this is section six, but I’m not sure

We don’t need to describe exactly what the Rules of Frup are, since it’s more than likely that you actually own copies of something very similar to the three Books of Frup. Go on, admit it. The actual game mechanics, on the other hand, are worth mentioning. Since FRUP is a parody of all those dice-dominated, number-heavy systems that were so popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s (and late 1980s, early 1990s and late 1990s, come to that), its mechanics had to be something different, or we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. Luckily we have better aim than Hol.

FRUP’s mechanics are like nothing you’ve ever seen before in the whole of the history of games, unless you’ve read Castle Falkenstein. Actually that’s a lie: it’s not the same at all. You’re welcome to bring packs of cards to a FRUP session, but only if you want to play poker.

The game is based around two or three core ideas. First of all, no numbers. During game-play, everything’s described in words. When non-gamers start listing Strength and Intelligence on a scale of 3-18 on their career resumes, then we will design games where characters measure their abilities in numbers.

Secondly, everybody is average at everything, except for a few things they’re particularly good at, and a few things they’re particularly bad at. These are ‘abilities’ and ‘disabilities’, and they’re measured on a simple scale. Characters start off with two mental abilities, two physical abilities, one combat ability and one weird ability. The player gets to choose exactly what each one is: a physical ability might be ‘climb walls’; a mental ability might be ‘make souffle’; a weird ability might be ‘climb souffle’.

But during character generation you can trade abilities with other players. If you want a character who’s a combat monster, you’ll want other players’ combat abilities, and you can trade your other abilities for them, or you can offer to take away their disabilities. Disabilities work the same way as abilities, except the referee decides exactly what they are. Any trade deal that the players agree on is acceptable. ‘One mental for one combat’ and ‘I’ll give you ten bucks for both your mental abilities’ are fine. So is ‘If you don’t give me that weird ability, I’ll eat your goldfish.’

In the game, abilities are compared to each other, and the highest wins. If they’re the same, it’s a draw. It’s possible for a character to have Good Days or Bad Days, but basically that’s it as far as mechanics go. Oh, there’s some stuff about magic, but that’s too boring to explain here. Mostly FRUP is very simple, very fast and with an emphasis on role-playing and creativity, not relying on dice, statistics or bullying the referee. The game is geared towards storytelling over simulation, and we’ve deliberately kept everything as quick and basic as possible, because we know that 90% of people who buy the game will use it with GURPS or Hero rules anyway. We at Hogshead are a down-to-earth crew.

(Footnote: If you honestly think a game-world like FRUP requires ‘realistic’ game mechanics, you are a very sad individual, and we have no sympathy for you. Now sod off.)

FRUP is not a diceless system. The difference is that it’s not the players who roll the dice, it’s their characters.

Let’s Write Something About Adventures

Although only Player Characters can go adventuring, they can drag NPCs along as henchpersons and lackeys. Since your characters will almost certainly start the game as NPCs (just tell your players it’s a character-building experience), it’s worth mentioning that PCs treat NPCs worse than dogs, and they will get all the filthiest, most degrading, most unpleasant jobs going. Going mad and attacking a PC isn’t heresy, but will bring down the wrath of their guild upon you, so you’ll probably end up tied to a stake and feeling your feet going crispy anyway.

Naturally, with one in every hundred people on Frup being a PC and desperate to rack up those career points, there usually aren’t enough adventures to go around. Characters can go off on their own, hunting heretics, but most prefer to wait for members of the Guild of Patrons to enter one of the inevitable taverns, and declare: ‘I have a job for a party of four to six adventurers, of stages 5-7, containing at least one priest’.

Oh, And Supplements

Naturally we have cartloads of supplements planned for this puppy. FRUP may be a one-joke game, but it’s a good, strong, post-modern joke, and we intend to stretch it out as far as possible, until it finally snaps and twangs back painfully to catch us in the eye.

First up, later this year, is Dragonlunch or, as it’s already known in the RPG industry, ‘Are these people really so desperate to get sued, or what?’ ‘Dragonlunch’ is actually the Frup name for cannon fodder (no cannons, you see), and this is a selection of adventures for novice characters, which completely by coincidence will turn into an epic world-spanning campaign, a gathering of heroes to defeat a dark power which threatens to engulf and destroy them all. Probably. A lot depends on exactly how many badly written fantasy trilogies we can face reading before we start writing it. The current estimate is none, and we’ll just wing it.

Next up is a double-adventure: Bite Me/Black Locust. ‘Bite Me’ sends the characters off to darkest Reih*navia on the trail of some renegade vampire hunters (and if they’re hunting vampire hunters, that must mean they’re… mind that stake!), while ‘Black Locust’ has them exploring fabled Zarzuela in search of the incredibly rare Black Locust, said to be an incredibly rare and powerful magic thing of which only 10,000 were ever made.

And finally, next summer, prepare yourself for the advent of Second Edition FRUP. We’ve been watching the games market for a while, and we’ve realized that the secret of profitability is ‘revamp, revamp, revamp’. So we thought we’d go for it, and schedule a second edition before we’d released the first. I mean, let’s get realistic here: we’re not in this industry for the good of our health. Not our mental health, anyway. If gamers are sad enough to buy three new rulebooks for their favourite game just because the layout’s been changed, then we will be quite happy to remove as much money from these people as we possibly can.

And now we’ll confuse you by saying that Second Edition FRUP is actually a campaign pack, not a rulebook. And that’s all we’re saying, because we hit our word-limit about a page ago, and we can feel the editor’s heavy pencil poised above us right now. Buy FRUP! Buy FRUP! Buy FRU—